Perhaps many scientists profess climate change is real because they are experiencing it directly. Research involving fetal tissue is in turmoil (1). Recommendations and conclusions from a report of a Select Investigative Panel of the House of Representatives created in response to controversy over the disposition of fetal tissues employed for research has ignited a battle. Scientists defended this area by pointing out its significance and contributions, but these claims and rationalizations were rejected by the panel. One high-profile scientific journal published a fact-checking analysis of the report to document its inaccuracies (2), but the reality is that research policies may be revised without much reference to objective data.
The scientific community has a problem – the public is not uniformly enthusiastic about certain implications of their work. Along with advances in methods to modify the genes of living organisms come some difficult ethical dilemmas. The U.S. National Academy opinion that genetic modification experiments on human embryos are acceptable (3, 4) is almost guaranteed to foster controversy. A self-imposed moratorium on some lines of research now seems unlikely (5) and it is hard to predict how events will unfold.
The fights over patenting the new genetic editing methods make it clear the stakes are enormous both for society at large and scientific entrepreneurs (6). Will the coming debates be fair? The political climate is so polarized in the U.S. it suggests a substantial likelihood the arguments over how, or perhaps even if, we should use genetic modification technologies could get ugly. Will facts carry the day or could other factors end up driving us into new situations?
Why did the U.S. put astronauts on the Moon? Yes, it was a challenge and advanced science, but this program was also a direct response to the technological achievements of the Soviet Union. Dubbed the Space Race, Sputnik launched a lot of things including the National Defense Education Act of 1958 to bolster the American educational system. Getting humans on the Moon was once a national priority, but situations changed quickly; the last manned lunar mission was Apollo 17 in 1972. Clearly competition and overriding national security concerns took us a long way from our home.
It seems likely that not all nations will share the same ethical concerns about human genome editing. Will worry that those who use the technology for such purposes could attain some sort of advantage compel us to pursue such work? History may not repeat itself exactly, but I bet those of us who were around during the Space Race days are in line to have a déjà vu experience when we hear the rationales to come.
(1) H. Ledford. 2017. U.S. Scientists Fear New Restrictions on Fetal-tissue Research. Nature, 4 January 2017. http://www.nature.com/news/us-scientists-fear-new-restrictions-on-fetal-tissue-research-1.21254
(2) M. Wadman. 2017. Fact-checking Congress’s Fetal Tissue Report. Science, 5 January 2017. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/01/fact-checking-congress-s-fetal-tissue-report
(3) S. Reardon. 2017. US Science Advisers Outline Path to Genetically-Modified Babies. Nature 14 February 2017. http://www.nature.com/news/us-science-advisers-outline-path-to-genetically-modified-babies-1.21474
(4) A. Harmon. 2017. Human Gene editing Receives Science Panel’s Support. The New York Times, 14 February 2017. https://nyti.ms/2lM396v
(5) D. Baltimore et al. 2015. A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Gene Modification. Science, 19 March 2015. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2015/03/18/science.aab1028.full
(6) H. Ledford. 2017. Broad Institute Wins Bitter Battle Over CRISPR Patents. Nature, 15 February 2017. http://www.nature.com/news/broad-institute-wins-bitter-battle-over-crispr-patents-1.21502